By – October 24, 2011

In her brief 38 years, Emma Lazarus achieved an inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion as a poet, social activist, lit­er­ary crit­ic, and Zion­ist, a lega­cy over­shad­owed by one son­net, placed decades after her death in the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty. This sym­pa­thet­ic and invig­o­rat­ing biog­ra­phy, based on recent­ly dis­cov­ered cor­re­spon­dence, gives Lazarus her place as a pro­to­typ­i­cal mod­ern Amer­i­can Jew.

Born in 1849 to wealth and priv­i­lege, Emma Lazarus was a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can, descend­ed from the Sephardic Jews who set­tled in New Ams­ter­dam and New­port in the 17th cen­tu­ry. Her fam­i­ly includ­ed the lead­ers of both Con­gre­ga­tion Shearith Israel in New York and Touro Syn­a­gogue in New­port, and she was relat­ed to almost every dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can Sephardic family.

In her first poems Lazarus’ strik­ing­ly indi­vid­ual intel­li­gence can be seen, notably her poem on Lincoln’s assas­si­na­tion, writ­ten in the voice of John Wilkes Booth, who, marked by the brand of Cain,” comes to know the hor­ror of his act. With a vol­ume of poet­ry and trans­la­tions behind her by age 18, she met Ralph Wal­do Emer­son and made the first of many intel­lec­tu­al­ly rich friend­ships that grew to include William and Hen­ry James, Robert Brown­ing, Hen­ry George, William Mor­ris, and the edi­tors of the lead­ing jour­nals of the day.

Her trans­la­tions of Hein­rich Heine alone brought her lit­er­ary promi­nence and praise. Her work on Heine, who strug­gled with his Judaism, stim­u­lat­ed her own strug­gle with her dual iden­ti­ty as a Jew and an Amer­i­can. Although she nev­er observed what she called the Law,” she wore her Judaism open­ly in a time of overt anti-Semi­tism and wrote poet­ry and prose, includ­ing a sto­ry on Vashti, infused with her knowl­edge of both the Old and New Testament.

When the pogroms in Rus­sia drew world­wide atten­tion and thou­sands of impov­er­ished and une­d­u­cat­ed Jews to the Unit­ed States, she broke into social action. She worked with the immi­grants and the new Hebrew Emi­grant Aid Soci­ety (now HIAS). In 1883, 15 years before Theodor Her­zl con­vened the first Zion­ist Con­gress, she found­ed the Soci­ety for the Col­o­niza­tion and Improve­ment for East­ern Euro­pean Jews, based on her idea of a Jew­ish home­land in Pales­tine, and began writ­ing on the Jew­ish prob­lem” for major jour­nals. Her friend­ships with George and Mor­ris influ­enced her polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic think­ing, although she nev­er ful­ly sub­scribed to their theories.

Through­out this active life Lazarus main­tained warm and inti­mate rela­tions with many women who were also try­ing to bal­ance the life of an artist with the life of an upper-class Vic­to­ri­an woman. Her cor­re­spon­dence with them, saved on their side but not hers, reveals this strug­gle, as well as the deep affec­tion and open­ness between them.

Writer, activist, fem­i­nist, Zion­ist, Emma Lazarus gave full expres­sion to her Amer­i­can and Jew­ish her­itage at a time when this was not social­ly expect­ed. In bring­ing out the com­plex­i­ties of Lazarus’ life, Esther Schor, poet and pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Prince­ton, has writ­ten a mov­ing biog­ra­phy of a woman who deserves our respect and atten­tion. Longer than the usu­al vol­umes in the Jew­ish Encoun­ters series, Emma Lazarus is a fullscale biog­ra­phy with a selec­tion of poems to acquaint the read­er with Lazarus’ work. Illus­tra­tions, chronol­o­gy, notes, sources, index.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

Pro­vid­ed by Nextbook

Men­tion Emma Lazarus, and the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty is most like­ly to come to mind. But this 19th-cen­tu­ry scion of an illus­tri­ous Sephardic fam­i­ly was so much more than the voice behind a sin­gle poem: an inter­na­tion­al­ly known author, an ambi­tious sin­gle woman, an advo­cate for the oppressed, a snob, a caus­tic decrier of anti-Semi­tism, a fire­brand for a Jew­ish home­land when most ridiculed the idea, a believ­er in a mul­ti­cul­tur­al Amer­i­ca a cen­tu­ry before there was even such a term. In Emma Lazarus, Esther Schor brings the poet to life with all her com­pli­ca­tions and con­tra­dic­tions. The fol­low­ing is a list of ques­tions to help guide you through her life and work. 

Assim­i­lat­ing Jews, Assim­i­lat­ing America 

My reli­gious con­vic­tions (if such they can be called), and the cir­cum­stances of my life have led me some­what apart from our peo­ple.” — Emma Lazarus 

The Unit­ed States is essen­tial­ly the great­est poem.” —Walt Whitman 

Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus grew up a priv­i­leged daugh­ter in a metrop­o­lis whose pop­u­la­tion was explod­ing, whose cul­ture and indus­try were boom­ing. How did Lazarus’s upbring­ing dur­ing a time of progress — when Cen­tral Park was being cre­at­ed, and the Brook­lyn Bridge painstak­ing­ly planned — shape her char­ac­ter and affect her lit­er­ary endeavors? 

Lazarus’s illus­tri­ous Sephardic fam­i­ly had roots in Amer­i­ca reach­ing back to colo­nial days, but she liked to describe her­self and her imme­di­ate rel­a­tives as Jew­ish out­laws. Poet­ry became a way for her to be Jew­ish in Amer­i­ca,” Schor writes. Specif­i­cal­ly, how did Lazarus con­nect to her Judaism through her voca­tion? Did this con­nec­tion change as she became more out­spo­ken on Jew­ish mat­ters? Do you think at the end of her life she would have described her­self in the same way? 

Lazarus cred­it­ed Daniel Deron­da — George Eliot’s nov­el about a young Eng­lish­man who ded­i­cates his life to build­ing a home­land in Pales­tine — with open­ing her eyes to the need for a Jew­ish state. She called Progress and Pover­ty, Hen­ry George’s work on eco­nom­ic reform, not so much a book as an event,” ignit­ing her aware­ness of the need for eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty. Both works were writ­ten by non-Jews. Lazarus social­ized and iden­ti­fied with non-Jews, express­ing her fer­vent belief in assim­i­la­tion and uni­ver­sal­ism. How was Lazarus’s inclu­sive­ness per­ceived, by Jews and non-Jews? Was it in keep­ing with the times? How would such a uni­ver­sal­ist approach to specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish prob­lems be seen today? 

Lazarus cre­at­ed a cat­e­go­ry for her­self that we take for grant­ed now: the semi-affil­i­at­ed Jew with a devo­tion to her peo­ple. What forces inspired Lazarus to take on this role? Why is it more preva­lent now than in her day? 

In The New Colos­sus,” Lazarus calls the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty the moth­er of exiles,” writ­ing about it in a dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish vein. What was Lazarus’s vision of Amer­i­can soci­ety, and how was it fueled by a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty? How does con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca resem­ble or dif­fer from the image laid out in Lazarus’s poem, writ­ten more than 100 years ago? 

Upon read­ing Lazarus’s son­net, the poet and crit­ic James Rus­sell Low­ell wrote, your son­net gives its sub­ject a rai­son d’être.” What was the stat­ue’s pur­pose, and how did Lazarus’s words shift that pur­pose from the stat­ue’s ini­tial intent? 

The Pow­er of the Pen 

What do you read?…You read every­thing, I know & my ques­tion is idle.” — Hen­ry James, in a let­ter to Emma Lazarus 

The Jew­ish Ques­tion which I plunged into so reck­less­ly & impul­sive­ly last Spring has grad­u­al­ly absorbed more & more of my mind & heart.” — Lazarus, to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop 

Schor writes that Lazarus invent­ed the role of an Amer­i­can Jew­ish writer.” How did she do this? How did this role affect her writ­ing? What sort of implic­it respon­si­bil­i­ties and chal­lenges did it car­ry? Was it lim­it­ing or broad­en­ing? Did she see her­self as a Jew­ish leader, and if so, was this posi­tion ever in con­flict with her vision of her­self as a writer? Was it dif­fer­ent for Lazarus than it is for a writer like Philip Roth today? 

On occa­sion, Lazarus would write about the same sub­ject for two dif­fer­ent pub­li­ca­tions, and she would shift her tone accord­ing­ly. (“One acidic, for Jew­ish read­ers; the oth­er sweet­ened, for a gen­er­al audi­ence,” writes Schor about Lazarus’ reviews of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion The Jews of Barnow. Was this sim­ply an instance of not reveal­ing one’s true posi­tion in front of the goy­im”? Do writ­ers today make sim­i­lar accommodations? 

Lazarus wrote in a vari­ety of forms; she harangued and chid­ed and inspired her audi­ences in lyric poems and blank verse, in essays and nov­els, and in week­ly news­pa­per columns. Can you think of an Amer­i­can author today who cov­ers sim­i­lar­ly wide ground? Was Lazarus a par­tic­u­lar case, or are cul­tur­al forces at work that make writ­ers today more specialized? 

The Sec­ond Sex 

I can­not resist the impulse of express­ing to you my extreme dis­ap­point­ment at find­ing you have so far mod­i­fied the enthu­si­as­tic esti­mate you held of my lit­er­ary labors…” —Emma Lazarus, to Ralph Wal­do Emerson 

I went out on Thurs­day evng. to meet my fate’ and great­ly to my dis­ap­point­ment he was not there…so I have to resume my posi­tion of old maid ad infini­tum unless I inher­it a for­tune or turn out to be a genius like Miss Coutts or George Eliot.” —Lazarus, to Hele­na deKay Gilder 

From the time she was a pre­co­cious ado­les­cent, Lazarus dis­played a healthy — some might say out­sized — con­fi­dence that would be unusu­al for a woman in the year 2006, let alone in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. Where did Lazarus derive her self-assur­ance? How did this qual­i­ty serve her in her career and in her per­son­al life? 

When Schor writes about Lazarus’s vis­it to an ail­ing Emer­son in Con­cord, she describes her will­ful­ness,” and men­tions Ellen Emer­son­’s per­cep­tion of her as an alien, aggres­sive pres­ence.” Time and again, Jew­ish women have been char­ac­ter­ized as pushy and assertive. How does Lazarus’s behav­ior fit in with the stereo­type? How does it com­pli­cate it? Did Lazarus try to counter this per­cep­tion, or use it to her advan­tage? Would Lazarus have been viewed dif­fer­ent­ly if she had not been Jew­ish? Does this same stereo­type of Jew­ish women exist today or is it more nuanced? 

When the free­think­ing, old­er Maria Oak­ley sud­den­ly announced her engage­ment to a man she had known for only a few weeks, the 32-year-old Lazarus was dev­as­tat­ed. Such devel­op­ments threw into sharp relief her ambiva­lence about mar­riage and chil­dren. What was the nature of her ambiva­lence? Did her lit­er­ary ambi­tion trump her desire for a tra­di­tion­al domes­tic life? Or was writ­ing mere­ly an excuse for her to remain in a state of per­pet­u­al daugh­ter­hood,” liv­ing inde­pen­dent­ly in her wealthy father’s house? How much do you think Lazarus was held back because of the mores of the day? Could you see her mar­ry­ing — or giv­ing in to her curiosi­ties about Boston mar­riages” — if she lived today? 

After her death, the obit­u­ar­ies took note of Lazarus’s courage and log­ic of a man” and her mas­cu­line vig­or.” Her sis­ter Josephine’s mem­oir, on the oth­er hand, drew a por­trait of Lazarus as a shy, dis­tinct­ly fem­i­nine” writer, a true woman.” Was the fact of Lazarus’s sex — and the myr­i­ad ways she devi­at­ed from the soft, retir­ing ide­al of fem­i­nin­i­ty — as much of an issue as her Jew­ish­ness? Are the two issues com­pa­ra­ble? How did they dif­fer in com­pli­cat­ing Lazarus’s life and career? 

Men­tors, Fathers, and Friends 

Am I capa­ble of any­thing wor­thy and true?” —Emma Lazarus, in a let­ter to Ralph Wal­do Emerson 

I felt when I came home from your house as I imag­ine a good Catholic feels after Con­fes­sion.” —Lazarus to Hele­na deKay Gilder 

From a young age, Lazarus cul­ti­vat­ed friend­ships with writ­ers such as Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, the great Amer­i­can tran­scen­den­tal­ist and essay­ist, and Thomas Went­worth Hig­gin­son, a promi­nent author and abo­li­tion­ist. Through these rela­tion­ships, she sought con­fir­ma­tion of her poet­ic skills and entrée into the greater lit­er­ary world — a world not con­fined by her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. How did such men­tors help to shape Lazarus’s career and estab­lish her sense of self? How did their reac­tions to her Jew­ish­ness dif­fer, and how did their posi­tions reflect Amer­i­can cul­ture at the time? Was Lazarus’s ded­i­ca­tion of her book of poet­ry to Emer­son sim­ply a way to gar­ner lit­er­ary respect or the expres­sion of an uncon­scious wish to per­haps pass among non-Jews? 

Through­out her career, Lazarus dis­played a long-stand­ing sym­pa­thy with and affin­i­ty for the work of Hein­rich Heine — first trans­lat­ing his lyrics as an ado­les­cent, turn­ing to his sto­ries, bal­lads, and poet­ry in her late twen­ties, and then writ­ing a son­net and what Schor calls her finest lit­er­ary essay about him three years before she died. What was it about Heine that drew Lazarus to his work? What were the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two writ­ers? The differences? 

The urbane, assim­i­lat­ed Lazarus was used to gen­teel anti-Semi­tism,” accord­ing to Schor, and rarely dis­cussed her Jew­ish­ness with her clos­est friend, the wealthy, world­ly Hele­na deKay Gilder, who was dis­gust­ed by Daniel Deron­da and felt Lazarus was an inap­pro­pri­ate match for her broth­er. And yet in her pub­lic life, Lazarus was unre­lent­ing­ly out­spo­ken against anti-Semi­tism. How did she rec­on­cile her pri­vate and pub­lic selves? 


Keep, ancient lands, your sto­ried pomp!” cries she with silent lips. Give me your tired, your poor, Your hud­dled mass­es yearn­ing to breathe free,” —Emma Lazarus 

For­get your hud­dled mass­es, send nerds.” —Busi­ness Week headline 

Sick and fear­ing death, Lazarus edit­ed her own body of work for pos­ter­i­ty, and omit­ted most of the Jew­ish poems, includ­ing the well-known Ban­ner of the Jew,” The Crow­ing of the Red Cock,” and the trans­la­tions of Heine’s poet­ry that had won her such crit­i­cal praise. Why would Lazarus, who carved out a rep­u­ta­tion for her­self as a cham­pi­on of the Jew­ish peo­ple, back away from this por­tion of her history? 

Lazarus, the scion of an assim­i­lat­ed, upper-crust fam­i­ly, was decid­ed­ly not a mem­ber of the class of peo­ple she was cham­pi­oning. How did this class dif­fer­ence man­i­fest itself in Lazarus’s behav­ior? What are some exam­ples from Jew­ish and Amer­i­can his­to­ry of sim­i­lar­ly aris­to­crat­ic lead­ers defend­ing the oppressed? 

Lazarus was a lit­er­ary celebri­ty, a pro­lif­ic writer acknowl­edged by pres­i­dents and fet­ed by artists, a fire­brand for Zion­ism and a defend­er of immi­grant rights, but what she is chiefly remem­bered for today is giv­ing the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty her voice. Is Lazarus’ lega­cy com­pro­mised or ele­vat­ed by the icon­ic sta­tus of her son­net? How do you think she would feel about the fame of this one poem, which lives on as a sym­bol of Amer­i­ca, ver­sus the rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty of her oth­er work? 

Schor opens the book with an anec­dote about vis­it­ing her young daugh­ter’s school for its annu­al Wax Muse­um per­for­mance, and see­ing three girls dressed as Anne Frank (and none as Emma Lazarus). Why does Anne Frank serve as such an endur­ing and attrac­tive hero­ine for young Jew­ish girls, and how is Schor try­ing to counter that with her depic­tion of Lazarus?